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Covering up is a feminist issue

Note: Since writing this post, some of the images have been made unavailable. However, I also created a video version of the Covering Up is a Feminist Issue message, which I would encourage you to check out and share.

Yesterday I read and commented on a post where a woman, mother, and published author was asking breastfeeding moms why they can't cover up. She wanted to know why women can't just be discreet. That led me to look up the word "discreet" in the dictionary and interestingly Merriam Webster says it means:
Having or showing discernment or good judgment in conduct and especially in speech: PRUDENT; especially: capable of preserving prudent silence.

According to that definition, it would seem that asking or telling someone to cover up is, in fact, indiscreet.

But is refusing to cover up indiscreet? I don't think so. There is a wide range of opinions on what constitutes good judgment with regards to how women dress themselves and how much they should or should not cover up. Any time a woman is told to cover up or told to undress, I see that as an attack on her person. Telling women to cover up and telling women to strip down are frequently used tactics for oppressing women. There are both practical and philosophical reasons why no one other than the woman herself should decide how covered or uncovered to be.  It is easier for onlookers to avert their eyes than it is for a woman to dress in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable.

When it comes to dressing, I think women should be able to choose from a wide variety of options. It should be up to them to decide how they feel comfortable.

Burka by niomix2008 on flickr

P1010131 by brookesb on flickr P1010131 by brookesb on flickr

Saturday Night Smile by LollyKnit on flickr

Paola by Gary Denness on flickr

19/03/07 by Sagrado Corazón on flickr

#4 rach in the rain by rachel sian on flickr

Leaning Back by Diana Blackwell on flickr

CLEAVAGE ON A LAZY AFTERNOON by fabiogis50 on flickr

Sesion Color by Master/Cyber on flickr

Sandra IMG_6836 by -Andrew- on flickr

Denim Skirts by Anita Robicheau on flickr

Hi mom! by Magdalena O! on flickr

365 day twenty-two: keep a light on by Foxtongue on flickr

When it comes to breastfeeding, I feel the same way. There is no one definition of how covered a woman should be. Some people think no skin should show at all. Others think anything goes. I don't think it is the place of anyone other than the breastfeeding mother to decide whether or how much to cover.

Magical Milk Pic-O-the-Week on welcometomybrain.net

Magical Milk Pic-O-the-Week on welcometomybrain.net

Madeleine hides under the Bebe au Lait cover by freeformkatia on flickr

Jones Beach by Joe Shlabotnik on flickr

DSC_5552 by 150hp on flickr

080308VanSickler073 by littleREDelf on flickr

Mamella by Amadeu Sanz on flickr

purchased from istockphoto

sosta in paese by Matteo Bagnoli on flickr

at 2 years old...by @noborders on flickr

Bonding by Mike.Hanlon on flickr

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to dressing and breastfeeding, appropriateness should be decided by the woman herself. If other people don't like it, they should discreetly avert their eyes.
« Canadian women are livid...and rightfully so | Main | Information, advertising, spam: Medela crosses the line »

Reader Comments (214)

Lovely photos, and I totally agree with your sentiment.

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersteph @ problem solvin mom

Beautiful pictures. Loved this gallery :)

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie @YMCBuzz

Beautiful pictures indeed, all of them! Funny how some of the non-nursing cleavage shots show more than many of the breastfeeding pictures. It IS a feminist issue--I'd no more tell a woman in a low-cut dress to cover up than I would a woman who was breastfeeding her child. Thanks for your thoughtful response to a controversy that shouldn't be.

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmyDJohnson

I know I occasionally disagree with your attitudes and opinions, but I thought this was a lovely way to get your point across. As a former whipper-outer, I salute you.
(Here's my contribution to your whip it out gallery: http://www.flickr.com/photos/48538229@N00/5365276/ )

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNadine

Nice. Very nice.

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCasey


I've gotta admit, I was most uncomfortable with the woman in the bikini. She was just so exposed, and it made me realize why I feel so uncomfortable in bikinis -- cuz there's nothing to 'em! I feel like I'm in my underwear.

There's a lot more exposed at the beach than there is when a mom is nursing her child, yet no one would dare tell a woman in a swimsuit at the beach to cover up. Except maybe if she was starting to get a bad sunburn :)

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKacie

I agree with your thoughts completely, and I appreciate the irony of debating discretion. The most polite and gracious thing in any situation, of course, is to avoid passing judgment on others.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

Well said!
I LOVE breastfeeding and am a huge supporter of it but I feel most comfortable using a nursing cover when in public. What hurts me the most is when someone thinks I'm doing breastfeeding a "disservice" by covering up. I'm nourishing my child in the best way possible, covered or not!

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterbananaramafoFin

Very, very cool. Creative way to get your point across.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAccidental Pharmacist

Lovely post. It bothers me that so many women feel another woman using a nursing cover somehow degrades breastfeeding-- or that people think breastfeeding should not be done in public under any amount of cover. Love your point of not judging.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterknoxvilledoula

This is fantastic. I've been down in the dumps all day thinking about her post. You are reading my mind. Thank you for articulating it so beautifully.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrystal Cienfuegos

Great post...for me I think the picture I had the most difficulty with is the first. Its hard for me to see wearing a burka as a choice that most women come to...for many it is not a choice, it is what they are born into. But, otherwise, in my opinion, spot on.

always a pleasure to read your voice.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaria H

Excellant! I'll retweet this and share on Facebook

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAly

Well put! As a mama who labored nearly topless and was asked if I'd be "more comfortable" buttoning my shirt, and a mama who was asked if I "asked if it would make [my] father uncomfortable" if I breastfed in the room, I appreciate your subtle yet clear message, and will be sharing this far and wide.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAccidentallyMommy

Beautiful photos, and great point, thank you. I would have some skepticism as to whether the woman in the burqa is choosing that because she really feels most comfortable in it, and if she does, I would have even more questions about WHY she feels most comfortable in it, mainly because I think it is pretty obvious that we need to relate to each other and that a big part of that is through body language and facial expression. Of course you could also debate how free the other choices are and probably in the end few such choices are really free, but still the absence of a possibility to communicate I do find a qualitative difference. Though even that photo is beautiful and has something mysterious.

According to a theory in the novel "Birds Without Wings", the adoption of islamic headdress by women follows the economic principle of bad money driving out good, set out in Akerlof's seminal paper on the market for lemons - the most beautiful women in traditional societies had to cover themselves because of the unwanted attention they got, especially where the parents considered they had the right/duty to arrange marriage, and didn't want romantic sentiments getting in the way. It then became a badge of beauty because if it was veiled there had to be a reason for this, and so everyone had to cover up in order to claim their own beauty, in which remaining unveiled suggested a lack of confidence. I can imagine some objections to this theory, but it's worth mentioning as placing the choice of dress in a cultural context in which it may also be liberating and affirmative, even if the context itself is patriarchal and cruel. Before we sanction individuals' choice of dress, we should be careful not to condemn them simply for being born in the cultural context that they were, and assuming our own choices to be completely free and superior.

Having said that, I'm a man and whilst I endeavor to act with cultural sensitivity, political correctness is not my thing. So you can guess which photos I loved the most :) Or rather you can guess which ones I found the most erotically appealing, which is surely also a conscious part of their choice. People (may and are entitled to) also feel comfortable being desired and to play with that in their daily choices according to the context and their mood. The breastfeeding photos, on the other hand, are very beautiful, but have no erotic charge at all, except the last which plays on both registers. They naturally elicit another reaction, more protective (although eros is also protective), and very warm and bonding - towards the woman, but also and especially towards the child. I think it is worth pointing this out. Perhaps, if I may put it so, there is a sacredness there that disactivates erotic response. It seems to me that the semiotics of eroticism and of other emotional responses to the human form is naturally very subtle, and only assumes crude and fetishistic proportions in response to crude conditioning. While we cannot safely abstract from that conditioning and ignore it, we should certainly not capitulate to it, and should (re)claim the semiotics of breastfeeding (and of infant nudity and other things) for what they truly represent in the minds of a healthy individual.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSean

Very well done. The juxtaposition of the two sets of pictures really tells the story.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArtemnesia

right on!!!!

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermary

Sean, that was splendid. My only question is why we must always separate the sacred and the erotic, although that's mostly a separate topic in the history of religions. In this culture (Western, generally), eroticism is welcomed when it is subjected to manipulative commodification but shunned when it allows personal identification or actualization beyond very strict controls. The resulting neuroticism, both cultural and individual, plays out worst (and slightly differently) in the USA and Australia, where paternalistic and pseudo-religious moralism always has the upper hand.

That moralism, based in ignorant prejudice feeding the desire for social control, affects breastfeeding in the USA very negatively.
An individual woman choosing to cover her breast(s) in breastfeeding may be both exercising good judgement and setting a less desirable example. The problem obviously comes when too many do it under cultural coercion. Massive re-education needs to change this.
Meanwhile, thank you, PhD, for this column. One of your opening remarks reminds me of something I first saw in 1997: "If they can force you to keep it on, they can force you to take it off."

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Rapoport

I completely agree! The description of the word discreet is very interesting. Now that I see it really applies to speech it seems people are using the wrong word for wanting a nursing mom to cover up.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia


I believe every woman should do what makes her comfortable. However, I do wish that more women would breastfeed uncovered in order to normalize it. It is still seen as odd or inappropriate by too many people. So I do cringe a bit when I see a sea of nursing covers when I'm out. But if there were equal numbers of covered and uncovered, then I don't think it would bother me at all.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I have struggled with my preference to be covered when NIP (or to use a nursing room), because I know in my heart, the more people see nursing, the more normalized it will become (sad that it's not already just the norm, but there you have it!) As a shy person who doesn't like attention or to invite conflict for any reason, I did prefer to use a blanket (as long as my baby would allow it, which wasn't long!), or wear a cardigan and a nursing tank. However, this in no way means I feel other moms should cover up or hide away, in fact I'm always happy to see moms breastfeeding out and about (and can't say I have ever "seen" anything other than a baby's head!) and wish I had felt more comfortable doing the same. It's particularly refreshing to see nursing moms in malls etc., when it seems the majority of parents are bottlefeeding infants without so much as taking them out of the stroller :(

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

Thanks for this, Annie- I'm going to make a small edit to my 11 Tips to help new moms post from a couple of days ago. One of them is to help her drape a blanket over the baby without covering his face. I need to be more clear that this was my sister's preference and comfort level, NOT because I think she should have. Breastfeeding mothers need 100% support in just that: what THEY and their child need. Not pressure from others to conform to *others'* needs.

That's of course also true (at least as far as I am concerned). But it would take us too far off the theme. Plus I would have to think what it was I *exactly* meant by opposing these words in this context which would surely lead to a long discussion (or do I mean monologue? LOL). It's of course also true that sex and babies are linked somehow... :) I guess I just meant that, for me, the reverence due to nursing and new life is easy to access, obvious and overpowering enough to generate a feeling of sanctity and that (like many other spiritual experiences) this doesn't pass through erotic arousal. Because of the relationship of libido to psyche, and because of our conditioning, the sacredness of what is erotic is much more problematic to access. This will not be changed by society quickly, but I think we can hope that there are enough voices to reject already, as Annie does, the fetishization of parts of the female body, especially when they are engaged in their primary function of nursing and giving life.
Anyway, my blog is there for that topic ;)

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSean

You cannot be more of a feminist than I am, but I did ask a friend at a social activity to pull up her shirt. THere was so much cleavage, it looked like a butt-crack. It didn't seem to be the look she was going for, bc she is (normally) a very conservative person...just that the shirt had shrunk or she had put on more weight since she last wore it. She didn't mind at all.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdele

Aren't we all 'born into' the conventions of our society regarding how we dress? In that context, how is how we dress in Canada any more or less of a choice than wearing a burqa? Hope that's not too big of a derail, Annie....

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlindsay

The primary difficulty, I think (and as I've argued at length many times on my own blog), with people calling for nursing moms to cover up is that imposes a norm of shame on breastfeeding - it tells us, and the public, that breastfeeding is something that should be concealed, that is shameful. The protest, often heard, is that it's not breastfeeding, but breasts, but as you show here, we accept the baring of breasts in all manner of contexts (low cut shirts, bikinis, etc). It's the *nursing* that gets shamed, so the mothers, and so women more generally.

Thanks for this.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHer Bad Mother

It's fairly clear that it's not so much the breast as the nipple. But you're right about the norm of shame. Requiring things to be covered may also indicate reverence but always control --- and here there's no reverence, for women's bodies have been deemed defective, abnormal, deviant, dirty, etc. for a few millennia at least.

The question of covering is covered (!) some at .

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Rapoport

I'm not sure that it is just the nipple Paul. Women are frequently told to "cover up" while breastfeeding even if they are not showing any nipple and just showing some of their breast. I don't need a cover to cover up the nipple - my baby's lips/head do that.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I am by the way a bit astonished if this is the experience of Canadian women - in my experience with four children who were breastfed in Belgium it absolutely never happened, nor have I ever seen someone ask someone else in public to cover up. And that's despite a lot of child-hostility. Certainly, people do it anyway out of a misplaced sense of shame, but actually telling someone to do it, I have never experienced. Still, if there is any stigma associated with it, then I think it relates to exposure and not nursing. I don't believe nursing is ever stigmatized in a context in which exposure would be accepted. I think it only, at worst, inherits the shame generally associated with public nudity. But I would agree that in practice this exposes breastfeeding to shame and it may be well (for all I know) be an important factor in women's decision whether to breastfeed or not.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSean

Yes, it's *sometimes* the breast, because the association with uncovering any part of it is too strong for some; but it's *always* the areola and nipple. Although there may be too much cleavage, etc. in some opinions, American society overall censors nipples, with many state and local laws on exposure being very clear about that.

As for the baby covering nipples, sure. But all babies have to latch and unlatch; some cannot stand coverings over their heads; some fuss even with coverings not over their heads; older ones often unlatch to look around; older ones may lift up their mothers' shirts; women with larger breasts or areolas have a harder time hiding them; and so on.

This whole controversy should not even exist, and doesn't in some societies. It's paternalism at its worst, essentially blaming women for men's potential bad actions and stigmatizing men too by assuming that, uncontrollably, they can't distinguish between breastfeeding and sexual instigation, or can't control their sexual urges in any situation.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Rapoport

A sentence above lost its ending because I put angle brackets around a URL. Sorry. It should read:

"The question of covering is covered (!) some at www.topfree.ca."

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Rapoport

I think this can get way off topic, but how you dress, or don't, in Canada while may be influenced by the society you are born into, is not tied to the suppression of woman's rights and their being under the control of and subservient to men. I would not consider a burqa and a tshirt to be equal "choices"

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaria H

bravo! eloquent and beautiful post

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterebbandflo aka pomomama

Wow, I could not agree more. People act like its completly the mothers decision to cover up or not, but its also the child. My daughter was afraid of being covered up, what am I do to do? Have her scream and tear any cover off? Does that not bring more attention to the fact that someone breastfeeds? Now, she does not do that as much, but still prefers not to. And I totally agree, if we can see women prancing around in bikins, with their breasts hanging out, what is wrong with showing the breasts for one of their true purposes? That is how twisted our society can be.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

I like your point that people are likely to have very different ideas of what "covered up" means. I had someone FREAK on me when my first was three weeks old, I was COMPLETELY covered by a blanket with only her feet sticking out. It messed me up for months and I planned outings around feedings so I didn't have to struggle with latching her in public (big boobs, first time Mom) lest anyone have an issue with it. As time went on I found my comfort zone and stopped caring. Now I nurse anywhere, without a blanket but covered by my t-shirt and thankfully no one has said a word so far...but if they did, they'd be politely offered a blanket to cover their heads with.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLizette

Great Post, Annie. This obviously hit a nerve with me too, I posted my breastfeeding photos yesterday, and mentioned my confusion at the Christian community's insistence that we must cover up lest it cause a man to stumble.


January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdventures In Babywearing

I'd love to find a picture of it (but I have a feeling that photographing it is considered "shameful") but women who wear the whole "mesh even covering their eyes burkas" have slits and they also just "whip it out".

I am very lucky to live in a place where women can wear what they want, and almost always, nurse where and how they want. (I am of course, excluding comments from in-laws and family which is a completely different issue). Someone challenged the government over the law that allowed men to be topless in public, and not women. They won -its not considered legal to have one rule for men and one for women. So women are allowed to be topless anywhere men are (ie not in stores, etc). The only part that is still sexist is that you can't be "topless" for the purposes of "advertising" (commercials, printed ads, or walking out front of a business). "Topless" is defined as seeing the areola, as near as I have ever been able to tell from print ads. Though as near as I can tell airbrushing out the damn areola makes it ok.

I try to be fine with women nursing covered up, but when its not actually working I often feel like going up and saying "Would you just FEED the baby!". Of course part of that is the hungry cry is about to make me need a new shirt =))

I have gotten lots of compliments for nursing while walking, a lot of moms struggle with that and are envious *lol*

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermystic_eye

I worry more about having my nice fat rolls covered up than the cleavage ;) Thus I love nursing tanks.
Once when C was under 1.5yo we were flying to visit relative. I had a nursing tank and a buttoned shirt on top with the first few buttons undone. No one said a thing. Once I latched C on and even raised the tank up to cover up more cleavage then the flight attendant offered me a blanket, "for my comfort". I smiled back at her I told her, thanks but I am fine and kept on nursing. My lesson from this? You can show as much skin as you want, so long as there isn't a child attached to your body. Sad, but true.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Amen! Those pics are beautiful. How could anyone see "inappropriate" or "disgusting" in those pictures? I see beauty and nature at its finest. Love on film.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaige

Thank you for this wide variety of lovely images. Before I became a mom 16 months ago I never really gave thought to any of this. I just didn't realize the extent of the issue. I did know that I wanted to breastfeed, I had already given a lot of thought to that decision. It was later, when I was banished from the room every time I needed to breastfeed my son (self imposed-just based on a vague feeling that I wasn't "supposed" to stay) that I really started to feel isolated and cut off from the world. And when my Mother-in-Law brought over a HUGE cover she'd made, it just felt so oppressive to me. Especially when I was in my own house. If she was visting and and I said "Oh, the baby is hungry" she would rummage around and find that cover and hand it to me. I started to feel really lonely. I know my story is not at all unique, but I say it because this is a large component of many mother's decision not to breastfeed-because it is made to feel like such a shameful and limiting thing and that so much of your life and self must be sacrificed in order to do it.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

What beautiful photos. I loved the message, though I agreed with some of the other posters that in the first series, both the burka and some of the more exposed pics at the very end did make me feel uneasy - I find it hard to say that women who cover THAT much or expose THAT much are ever doing it totally because it makes them feel comfortable, not because on some level they are trying to please men around them or subscribing to male objectification of women.
On the other hand, the extremely exposed breastfeeding pictures didn't bother me at all, since it was obvious there that the woman was exposing herself not to please men or become a sexual object but rather to make breastfeeding easier, allow skin-to-skin contact, etc.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

Interesting discussion.

A number of you have noted that while you agree with the message, some of the pictures made you uncomfortable or you found it difficult to believe that women would choose to dress that way. Some of you questioned or asked to what extent appropriateness is determined by our social/cultural context.

I think what we are comfortable with as women is shaped by our cultural context. I don't think that is wrong. It just is what it is. However, if a woman, within a specific culture feels like stepping outside of the boundaries of what makes the majority of other women comfortable, I think it should be her choice to do so.

Personally, I could never wear a burka. I would not be comfortable. But I have read about and heard of educated women in Canada who will state emphatically that it is their choice to wear a burka. Yes, they may be influenced by their upbringing and religion, but as long as they truly feel it is their choice, I don't think it is my place to criticize that.

For me personally, I was not uncomfortable with the bikini shot at all. In fact, when I am happy with my body, I do wear a bikini. I http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/12/28/i-want-to-be-myself-again/" rel="nofollow">even posted a picture here on my blog. I also wore a bikini almost every day during the third trimester of my first pregnancy, because we live on a lake and it was very hot outside. I have also sunbathed topless in Europe and felt completely comfortable doing it, whereas going completely naked in the saunas and baths in Europe (which I did) tested the boundaries of what I am comfortable with (both for myself and in terms of what I was seeing).

All that to say, culture and society does impact what each of us is comfortable doing. However, my main point is that my comfort level does not give me the right to dictate what someone else does or doesn't do.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

Beautifully said. And I just have to say that some of those first photos show more skin then the moms who are breastfeeding without a cover. I am not saying I have a problem with that just that it is ridiculous that one is acceptable and not the other. I am sure this point has been made too many times to count but it still irks me.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterUpstatemomof3

Well said. I could not agree more!

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Lovely photo compilation, and great post.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMamaBee

@Upstatemomof3: My point was to show the full array, from completely covered to completely uncovered, in both dress and breastfeeding. What is "appropriate" is not as narrow as people may think.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Annie, you are my hero. This is completely wonderful.

When will feminism begin to take these issues seriously?

Side note, it is my understanding (as a previous commenter mentioned) that exposing a breast from within a burka in order to feed a baby is a non-issue. I was once told by a middle eastern acquaintance that burkas are even designed with vertical slits to accommodate nursing mothers, though I have never seen this in order to be able to confirm it myself.

I suppose the good news is that cultural prejudices *can* be overcome.

Nice work!

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeg

For me it totally depends on circumstances. I have no problem feeding anywhere and anytime, but there is a certain group of purely male friends that I love to bits, but whenever I'm around them, I can't feed! It's strange! Because my other male friends who have partners I have no problem feeding around. I don't really give people a choice, to be honest! But then it's as you say... what I am comfortable with!

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLuschka

"Any time a woman is told to cover up or told to undress, I see that as an attack on her person. Telling women to cover up and telling women to strip down are frequently used tactics for oppressing women. There are both practical and philosophical reasons why no one other than the woman herself should decide how covered or uncovered to be. "

I've never thought of this issue in quite those terms, and honestly now that you bring it up I could not agree more. I also agree 100% with the comment you wrote above. It should be the WOMAN's choice how covered up she wants to be. It's NO ONE ELSE's business to decide for her.

I am saving this blog post for future reference and sharing. Thank you so much for writing it. =)


January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

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